“Thou hast the keys of Paradise, O just, subtle, and mighty Opium!”
Though apparently presenting the reader with a collage of poignant memories, temporal digressions and random anecdotes, the Confessions is a work of immense sophistication and certainly one of the most impressive and influential of all autobiographies. The work is of great appeal to the contemporary reader, displaying a nervous (postmodern?) self-awareness, a spiralling obsession with the enigmas of its own composition and significance. De Quincey may be said to scrutinise his life, somewhat feverishly, in an effort to fix his own identity.
The title seems to promise a graphic exposure of horrors; these passages do not make up a large part of the whole. The circumstances of its hasty composition sets up the work as a lucrative piece of sensational journalism, albeit published in a more intellectually respectable organ – the London Magazine – than are today’s tawdry exercises in tabloid self-exposure. What makes the book technically remarkable is its use of a majestic neoclassical style applied to a very romantic species of confessional writing - self-reflexive but always reaching out to the Reader. (Summary by Martin Geeson)
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May 28, 2013 Subject:
Shameful Confessions in Fancy Language
In de Quincey’s day in England, narcotics were sold for a pittance by the local druggist in liquid form. The client ingested as many drops as he deemed necessary for the relief he desired. Because opium was cheaper to buy than ale or spirits, it was popular among the working poor as a temporary escape from drudgery. Opium builds upon the bosom of darkness more splendid cities and temples than Babylon. Or so the author says.
The Confessions of an English Opium Eater walks us through nearly two decades in the life of an opium user. The ‘moral scars’ that are exposed to view are not so hideous to look at because many of them are written between the lines and the rest are described in grandiose, not boorish, terms. That is why, maybe, the production became an instant success. It is introspection without indelicacy, which result requires an author to be more than commonly literate. The high point of this literacy happens when he speaks in superlative language about being nursed by a sympathetic woman. Though it would be easier to tell for sure with the actual book in hand, I think that he is speaking allusively of opium in that passage. The man reading these confessions, by the way, is as affectedly pretentious as the content seems to demand. Martin Geeson plays the part so convincingly that the reader will not conceive of de Quincy saying ‘opium eatah’ in any other way.
Much of the philosophizing is good, and relevant to the subject. But enough of it consists of ‘too much description,’ which is what de Quincey promises to spare us of. Opium is the hero of the tale, he himself tells us. And if opium eaters are been taught to fear and tremble through the revelations of the author, the moral of the tale has had its intended effect.
May 21, 2011 Subject:
worth a listen
Thanks to Martin Geeson for the delightful reading